Are you discouraged about America today? Do you think that we have lost our way? Do you despair that we will ever get government "by the people for the people," or do you think that it is slowly perishing from the earth in favor of power elites who can buy elections and then do whatever they want?
The Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4th, 1776, has become one of the hinges of history, in America and all over the world. In these magnificent words, this nation began:
"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they were endowed by Their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Some 76 years later, Frederick Douglas, an African American orator and freed slave, delivered a 4th of July speech in Rochester, New York, titled "What To The Slave Is The 4th of July?" Douglas did not mince words:
"I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony."
The latest edition of Time Magazine has an article on the American Dream by Jon Meacham. In it he says that Americans have been "cognitively dissonant from the beginning." Instead of being consistent in terms of equality for all, white settlers drove the American Indian to the West until the tragic "Trail of tears" culminated that drama. While white settlers dreamed and built, people of color were subjugated and exploited by the new rising nation. It was as if the great words of the Declaration of Independence had never been written.
On the 4th of July 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. stood up to preach in Ebenezer Baptist Church. He said that The American Dream is found in those majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, words lifted now to cosmic proportions: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal... "
King said: "It doesn't say 'some men,' it says 'all men.' It doesn't say 'all white men,' it says 'all men,' which includes black men. It does not say 'all Gentiles,' it says 'all men,' which includes Jews. It doesn't say 'all Protestants,' it says 'all men,' which includes Catholics. It doesn't even say 'all theists and believers,' it says 'all men,' which includes humanists and agnostics."
Martin Luther King achieved much for the American Dream, but he did not see the promised land. Neither have we.
I want to suggest today that while the American Dream both is inspiring other nations and peoples, it is in real danger at home. The American Dream inspired the Arab Spring, it inspired Tahrir Square, and it inspired the Syrian revolution. People everywhere want self-determination. They want Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness as their dream, as it has been ours.
The American Dream has always been in the hands of its citizens. When it is threatened it is always the citizens who try to put things right.
There are two massive threats to that dream today: We are losing it to global climate change, and we are losing it to the problem of inequality in America. We believe in preserving equality of opportunity, not that everyone should be equally rich. We know that a nation that does not have health care for all is an unequal nation. Thank God for the Supreme court decision this past week which is a first step toward universal coverage for all.
We know that a nation with an ever-widening gap between the very rich 1% and the other 99 % is burdened with an inequality that will bring us down. We know that many of the rich are rich without conscience. They urge us to continue to exploit fossil fuels to create jobs in an ever hotter world, because so far, their money has insulated them from all discomfort.
In Holland the rich and poor have learned to cooperate, because in a nation built below sea level, they all live behind the dikes. If the dikes go, they all go.
It is time for us to awaken to a similar reality. We are all living behind the dike of temperature. We are all in this together. We must learn to get along and dump our greed in the interests of the common good. Failure to do so will result in more wild fires, more hurricanes, more floods, more deaths and dying than we have ever dreamed about. In other words, the failure to implement the American Dream of equality and life and liberty for all, and instead give these gifts only to the 1 %, will spell doom for this time of the earth.
We have got through some very dark times before. We got through the Great Depression by pulling together and creating safety nets. We got through the Great Second World War by joining with Allies. We will get through global climate change only by standing behind the dike as one global humanity. The challenge is massive, and what we need is a Martin Luther King, Jr. to challenge our assumptions, someone who won't take it anymore... Where is he today?
There is a solemn warning in the Declaration of Independence that we all need to hear:Governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed-that whenever a government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government... " This is what has been attempted in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. Dying regimes, always, it seems, resort to increasing levels of force. That is very sad, for in what they fear is their ownsalvation. If we don't do something about the 99% and the 1% here in America, we, too, will face revolution again. And it won't be pretty.
Anything that threatens the American Dream-now a world dream-we must take on. We will necessarily lose our happiness until we love the earth and each other as ourselves.
Nadja Halilbegovich as a child lived in Sarajevo, a city known internationally for its tolerance of difference. But all that changed in 1992, when hatred and intolerance exploded into bullets and grenades. Nadja thought initially that the violence would end soon, but it dragged on for years, and she thought it would never end. An American family heard of her plight and was willing to host her in their home until she could get an education. So Nadja chose to dream of a life in America.
The only way out of Sarajevo was through a dank and narrow, airless tunnel. There was a line outside the tunnel, and grenades were falling within 20 feet of her as she and her mother entered. Mud and water dripped from above, and the whole tunnel smelled of urine. It seemed that they were walking forever. Some people around them collapsed from sheer exhaustion or lack of air. Others would pick them up and carry the unconscious ones. Each time Nadja faltered or began to cry, her mother would say, "Nadja, remember your dream!" They reached the end of the tunnel to encounter sniper fire and bombs falling around them. At one point Nadja looked around to see if her mother was still alive. Right behind her, her mother said: "Keep walking! Keep walking." Two days later Nadja kissed her mother goodbye as she boarded a plane to the United States, following the American Dream to a better life.
Her American family loved her, taught her, and gave her a chance to live. But Nadja did not want to take her freedom and this beautiful country for granted. She chose to face the past about what happened in her country and took the responsibility to teach others. When asked why she had lived when so many others died, she answered: to take the responsibility of living for all those who did not live.
She says that she pays attention to life on behalf of the small boy who lay in his mother's arms while she watched his tiny bloody shoelaces swing back and forth as the mother ran. She listens now on behalf of the woman who was murdered in the street while she watched her try to buy bread for her children. She says that if she can help other people understand the importance of love and life and liberty and the need to turn away from the dark natures within themselves, then her own wounds will heal.
Are you discouraged about America today? Do you think that we have lost our way? Do you despair that we will ever get government "by the people for the people," or do you think that it is perishing from the earth?
There may be a long dark tunnel ahead of us in America. We do have massive problems, but we also have a history. Even in our darkest days, we have unfailingly remembered the dream.
In 1956 the conscience of America stood up to speak in Washington. He began his speech talking about a bad check that had been given to the Negro people.
He said, "When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. The note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
He had a dream, he said, that one day freedom would ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, so that we would be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and women, and white men and women, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we're free at last."
Remember the dream. And keep walking.
David Thompson became a U.S. citizen one year ago. David is executive director and chaplain of The Experience, an interfaith organization dedicated to building bridges between faith communities. A former high school English and Theatre Arts teacher, he became a Presbyterian pastor, serving in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, for 17 years. He served as Head of Staff at Westminster Presbyterian in downtown Sacramento, California, from 2001 to 2009. Immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he joined the Interfaith Service Bureau, becoming its President in 2009. In September 2009, David along with others founded The Experience. David is a graduate of the University of Toronto, (B.A.), The Ontario College of Education, the Toronto School of Theology (Master of Divinity) and St. Michael's College (Ph.D.). He believes the way to world peace is to bring peace between the world religions, and that peace will be achieved through deep mutual respect, embrace of differences, cooperation on ethical issues and hospitality to strangers.